Turkey gives the cold shoulder to US proposal to seal Syria border
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in a press conference at Ankara Esenboğa Airport ahead of his visit to Azerbaijan on Dec. 3, 2015. AA PhotoPrime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has underlined the difficulties and potential complications of a move by Turkey to close the border with Syria, as a report revealed Ankara’s anger over U.S. leadership’s insistence on using Turkish ground forces on the border to accomplish this goal.
“Keeping the entire border with Syria [closed] may come on the agenda as a project but then what will you do about transiting refugees? We have a moral responsibility along this 911-kilometer-long border and it is accepting refugees. We have a strategic responsibility and it is ensuring security of the border. Not having terrorists transition and any negative developments on the Turkey-Syria border are in Turkey’s interest. We have paid the highest price for Daesh’s terrorist activities,” Davutoğlu said on Dec. 3 in response to a question on border security, using the Arabic acronym Daesh to refer to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“There is nothing more difficult than protecting a border on the other side of which there is no political authority. There is no functioning state system or counterpart administration on the other side. At the moment, around 98 kilometers of our border seem under Daesh control. In the past months we had given orders to build physical barriers on the entire border and these physical barriers are being built. Control is maintained through signal systems but beyond that we are conducting all kinds of works to eradicate Daesh from these 98 kilometers,” Davutoğlu said at a press conference ahead of his departure for an official visit to Baku.
“The characteristic of Russia’s operations [in Syria], which are not against Daesh, is one of the factors which obstructs the eradication of Daesh from our borders,” he added.
In its Nov. 27 edition, The Wall Street Journal focused on the pressure U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has put on Turkey to deploy thousands of additional troops along its border with Syria to cordon off a 98-kilometer frontier, by citing U.S. officials as saying it was used by ISIL to move foreign fighters in and out of the war zone.
“The U.S. hasn’t officially requested a specific number of soldiers. Pentagon officials estimated that it could take as many as 30,000 to seal the border on the Turkish side for a broader humanitarian mission. Cordoning off just one section alone could take 10,000 or more, one official estimated,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
According to a Dec. 3 exclusive report by Deniz Zeyrek from daily Hürriyet, discussions over Turkey’s intense deployment of ground forces on the border came on the agenda during a meeting between Turkish and U.S. officials which took place in Ankara.
Yet, according to the Hürriyet report, it was Turkish officials who “pronounced the specific number of 30,000 troops.”
When making an assessment of the U.S. proposal for Turkish troops to protect the border, Turkish officials said, “To keep the border [secure] through the method you mentioned, we need to pile up 30,000 troops along 98 kilometers and put a watchtower/soldier every three meters,” Hürriyet reported.
Ankara refused the U.S. proposal for two reasons; first, it is not applicable and second, the “opposing side” might adopt a hostile attitude by using the troop build-up as a justification, the daily said.
Turkey has begun building walls on the border and increased the number of border patrols and watchtowers, Turkish officials speaking with Hürriyet said, adding these methods have however been insufficient thus far.
To reach 100 percent success, an integrated border system has to be implemented, the same officials told the daily, while noting Turkey would have difficulty meeting the huge expense of such a system.
The border between Turkey and Syria is at the same time the border between NATO and Syria, the officials said, calling on both the European Union and the United States by saying, “Let’s share the cost and we would then rapidly implement it.”
As recently as Dec. 1, Obama said he had spoken to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in Paris on the sidelines of a climate change conference about the need to close the border between Turkey and Syria, while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said Erdoğan is “completely committed and ready to proceed” to help guarantee that the remaining portion of the border is closed.
“With respect to Turkey, I have had repeated conversations with President Erdoğan about the need to close the border between Turkey and Syria,” Obama said during a speech delivered at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) headquarters in Paris on Dec. 1.
“We’ve seen some serious progress on that front, but there are still some gaps. In particular, there’s about 98 kilometers that are still used as a transit point for foreign fighters and for ISIL to ship out fuel for sale that helps finance their terrorist activities,” he added.
Stating the Turkish and U.S. militaries were working together to determine how a combination of air and Turkish ground forces on the Turkish side of the border could do a better job of sealing the border, Obama said that he believed Erdoğan “recognizes that.”
Meanwhile, Kerry said Dec. 2 in Brussels that the Turkish side was ready to cooperate in totally sealing its border with Syria.
“President Erdoğan is completely committed and ready to proceed with Turkish forces, and in cooperation with others, to help guarantee that the remaining portion of the border is sealed,” Kerry said after a meeting of foreign ministers from the 28 NATO states in Brussels, according to Reuters.